The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Kia Ora, shalom.

 Scientists and journalists mix like acid and water.

Both must publish or perish but approach the task from different vantages.  Scientists think they occupy the high intellectual ground, the custodians of all knowledge which they occasionally drip feed to those below.

Journalists dwell in the lower levels but know this is where true wisdom resides.  We hear the voice of the people.  It is not polysyllabic jargon. It’s blunt and direct.  It resonates.

Scientists keyboard 100 word sentences.  We use ten.  They have discourse.  We talk. They elucidate – we tell. They juxtapose, we mix. 

Noel got down and dirty and not just because he was a soil scientist.  He could  communicate and to do that you have to relate.

Indonesia is not for all. It can delight but it’s also discomforting. For some it’s magic – for others menacing.

If discipline and order rule your life then stay away.  If organisation is the measure of your being then remain in the Anglosphere.

For our nearest Asian neighbour is different from Aotearoa on almost every compass  point from religion to cuisine, history, language, culture and all degrees between.

Though not in geology, landforms and the troubled, trembling land we stand upon. When Noel and the GNS and MFAT teams went to Aceh after the Indian Ocean tsunami they witnessed the awful devastation and anguish close up.

So did the scores of other international recovery teams. Though their mission was mercy some saw the answer  as telling  damaged people to move away.

Kiwis don’t do that. Noel didn’t fly in and out – he returned and was welcomed back – and that’s the mark of the man.

Indonesians are canny folk.  Though protocols are important they don’t trump relationships.  Journal paper may dazzle and intimidate fellow professionals here - but they have no clout in Indonesia where people are measured by their warmth, sincerity and personal concern.

Noel showed through his humour and compassion that although he came from a different world he understood the pain and concerns of ordinary folk of Aceh.  His efforts on their behalf were genuine and not a career advancement. 

The proof is in his book on the recovery of Aceh, a work that could not have been written without the support of the victims and some  key Indonesians.

People like Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Aceh recovery programme, Susi Pudjastuti, now Minister for Fisheries and Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, rector of Universitas Gadjah Mada who sees Noel as a hero.

That’s because Noel had mana on all levels.  Few Indonesians know the word but they understood here was a man who carried the knowledge and authority but never flaunted those qualities.  He handled influence with humility.

As a result he and his colleagues from GNS Science, MFAT, UGM and others have showed that the future doesn’t have to be a photocopy of the past, that systems can be installed to warn of dangers to come and survival lessons can be learned.

Because of Noel and his colleagues millions will survive in future disasters.  Noel made a difference because he came down from the academic heights and spoke the language of ordinary people. 

He related.  He communicated.

In our grief we should be proud.  Proud that we knew a man who had a rare and special quality – the ability to show that science can make lives better.

(Delivered at the funeral of Dr Noel Trustrum in Kilbirnie, Wellington, on 26 April 2016.  Noel died five days earlier after battling cancer for five years.  His last weeks were spent with his wife Helen in Bali.)

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